Victoria Cave July 1870

The 1870s excavation team outside the entrance to Victoria Cave.

Over the next 18 months, we’re exploring the Ice Age gems hidden in Victoria Cave. This is your chance to help bring them to national attention.

Archaeology is fascinating not just for its discoveries, but also for the story behind those discoveries. Victoria Cave certainly has one of ‘those stories’, and now you can be part of it.

Two men and a dog get lucky

Our tale begins one afternoon in 1837, just before the accession of the young Queen Victoria, when two men were out walking in the Yorkshire Dales. Running off ahead, one of their dogs disappeared down what appeared to be a foxhole. Crawling into the narrow passage to investigate, Michael Horner eventually returned to the surface. His hands full of remarkable artefacts. This accidental discovery turned out to be one of the archaeologically richest caves in the UK.

Cave hunting

By now, primitive human remains had been discovered in the Neander Valley, and the Victorians were particularly fascinated by ‘bone caves’ where there might be a possibility of finding evidence for the earliest humans and long extinct animals. The hunt for the ‘missing link’ was on and if there was one thing Victoria Cave had, it was plenty of animal bones.

The Victorians get stuck in

Returning with some friends and, later on, the support of some of the most prominent figures in mid-Victorian science (Charles Lyell and Darwin to name a few). Together, they formed the Settle Cave Exploration Committee.

Joseph Jackson worked day and night, excavating the chambers by candlelight. Originally a shopkeeper, he eventually became the cave’s official archaeologist, all because of his sheer dedication to the project.

Within the cave’s thick clay deposits, they found an amazing record of climate change in the Dales over the last 600,000 years, including evidence that would later prove to the world that the Ice Age was not a continuous period of freezing temperatures, but a cyclical event which alternated between warm and cold.

Consigned to the dustbin of history

Victoria Cave looked set to become a star of the geological and archaeological world, but was consigned to the dustbin of history when two of its experts – Dawkins and Tiddeman – fell out over the interpretation of a hyena bone during a round of excavations in the 1870s.

Tiddeman’s interpretation of the quaternary sequence as showing a succession of glacial and inter-glacial events, and not a single glacial event, was anathema to Dawkins whose personal barrage against Tiddeman soured the site to the point where no scientist wanted to be involved. Victoria Cave and its incredible treasures were forgotten once again, lost to science for almost a century.

They weren’t the first humans to discover the cave, and neither would they be the last

Caves act as natural sediment traps, preserving remains of past human activities that would otherwise have been removed by glaciations on open-air sites. Vast earth-moving excavations had also taken place at Elbolton Cave, and, in the earlier 20th century, along Giggleswick Scar at Sewells, Greater and Lesser Kelco, and Kinsey Cave and together, they built up enough evidence to suggest that humans used and re-used the caves and overhanging rock shelters of the northern England over the last 50,000 years, from the Upper Palaeolithic and into the medieval period.

Victoria Cave is one of the best preserved. It’s a one-and-only record of how climate, wildlife and human occupation have changed over the last 600,000 years. It’s produced evidence that mega-herbivores like hippo, rhino and elephants once roamed the Yorkshire Dales, the first evidence of Magdalenian people in the north, and the last evidence of wild lynx in the UK (a vital bit of evidence in the case made for re-wilding by George Monbiot). Somewhere in between, it was used by Romano British cave cults, until the entrance collapsed and the cave was forgotten.

Arrival of the Pig Yard Club

Having already been discovered and forgotten a number of times, Victoria Cave was rediscovered yet again in the 1930s, when another working mens’ group got involved. Tot Lord, a local lad who had attended a talk on archaeology, got interested and, along with friends, they set up a society based at a nearby pig farm.

Calling themselves the Pig Yard Club, they continued work at Victoria Cave and surrounding caves, building up a vast collection of bioarchaeological and archaeological remains. For the last few decades, these collections have been carefully looked after and investigated by Tot’s grandson, Tom, who has published the results extensively in academic journals.

Now it’s your turn!

None of these discoveries would have been made without collaboration between enthusiastic members of the public, and heavyweights of the scientific world. Victoria Cave is now recognized, at least in academic circles, as an internationally important site that has produced groundbreaking evidence. It’s now time to carry on the work that these local societies started and bring this national treasure to light.

DigVentures has teamed up with Tom Lord and the Heritage Lottery Fund, but it needs help from you, the public, to do it.

There’ll be loads of ways to get involved over the next 18 months, the first of which is the chance to join Nigel Steel to go and explore Victoria Cave and several other smaller caves, and to view, handle and learn about the artefacts that tell the story of millennia.

You can join the team for a very special Dirty Weekend, or stay up to date with later activities by joining the DigVentures mailing list.

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Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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